Tuesday, February 23, 2010

pure life

"Do not ask me about my conception of God.
I live in God, I am in God.
More than that I cannot say."
(Hazrat Inayat Khan)

22 feb, 2010, feast of the chair of peter, kuala lumpur, malaysia

I am once again a guest at the Shuddah Samajam, the Pure Life Society here in Kuala Lumpur. This place was founded in 1952 by Swami Satyananda, a Tamilian Malaysian who was a former monk of the Ramakrishna Order. There were and are two purposes for this place, to be both a center for inter-religious dialogue and an orphanage, mainly serving the ethnic Indian population of Malaysia and the many Tamil orphans after World War II. (Just a brief history for those who might be reading who haven't read my posts a year ago about this--though you can consult back in the blog.) It is now and for many years has been run by Mother Mangalam who was a disciple of the good swami and takes credit for inspiring him to add orphanage onto his many inter-religious and educational endeavors in Malaya (as it was still known at the time before the British left in 1959). He met an untimely death at 52 years old (my age! shiver...) due to car accident. (This year is his centenary as well as Abhishiktananda's. What a generation!) Both of his initiatives for this place continue under Mother's leadership, the home for children (very few of them are actually orphans) and the Interfaith Spiritual Fellowship. There is also here the Temple of the Universal Spirit, decorated with large placards about the Global Declaration of Universal Ethic, mainly the work of Hans Kung, and an altar topped with the words AUM and Amen. This is also where Fr John Main learned to meditate from Swami Satyananda when Fr John himself was in the British Civil Service, hence the legacy of the World Community for Chrisitian Meditation.

They have only recently, in the past few years, converted the swami's old hut into a sort of shrine room, as is done often in India. The main room which was his office holds some of his effects and a large life size portrait, with a smaller room where he slept attached. A few years back Laurence Freeman was here when the John Main Seminar was held in Kuala Lumpur, and he blessed it. I met Mother for the first time and sang for the kids two years ago through Dr Pat Por, my main contact here, who is a close acquaintance of hers. And for the second year in a row now, at Mother's invitation, that is where I am staying, in that little room surrounded by portraits of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, the Tamil mystic Ramalinga Swami, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. For all the work and travel there have been on this trip, it has also been spotted with regular breaks, and so now I have two days completely free for some retreat time here.

I had a good crossover in Singapore. I flew from Delhi through the night on Tuesday and got in on Ash Wednesday morning. I was once again welcomed by the friars at San Damiano Friary at St Mary of the Angels church. My friend John Wong, ofm, said, as usual, "Cyprian! Welcome home!" I didn't have much to do the first two days but as usual Leonard and Claire Ong, who have also become good friends and collaborators here, spoiled the stuffing out of me. I was thinking of them as "spa days": they took me out for one delicious meal after another, got me a session with their chiropractor (they all seem to be quite keen here on monitoring how well I am by how much I limp), a good Yoga class at Leonard's favorite studio and a 90 minute massage. I also managed to get in a couple of good runs in the early morning before the muggy heat of the day, one with another young friend, Jeff, son of Dr Pat.

The "work" there in Singapore, such as it was, consisted in only two things. Friday night we had a concert at St Mary's itself, as part of their "Voices for Peace" series. (Wait 'til you see that poster and T-shirts for that event-- as for the latter, I'm finally catching up with Tom Booth--a pretty close facsimile of the Woodstock logo.) Leonard had tried to gather some of the folks that did the event at the Gurdwara with us last year to perform too but, being so close to Chinese New Year, which is a major celebration in these parts, it was not a good time. In the end we were three different performers. The first up was the marvelous Sikh Sangeeta that we met last year, this time men and women performing together, about ten of them, I believe. (Leonard and Richard will hopefully supply some pictures soon. I've given up as a photographer.) I had had a lot of Sikh music already staying at the YWCA right behind Bagla Sahib Gurdwara in Delhi, and was joking that I liked it much better at 8 in the evening rather the 3:30 in the morning. It was beautiful, as before. Someone gave an explanation of the meaning of music for the Sikhs, and how the entire Scripture, which is itself considered the guru, is sung and classified according to the raag in which the various passages are sung. Then he also gave a brief explanation of all the instruments, some of which were designed by one or the other of the nine gurus of the Sikh tradition specifically for this purpose. What our friend Aaron pointed out to me that evening, and what others mentioned later, was the beauty of seeing this Sikh ensemble sitting on the floor of the sanctuary of a Catholic church right in front of the altar directly under a huge corpus of Christ which had been made for the friars by a Muslim sculptor. That's the Singapore I know and love. Then the same Aaron (Maniam) and some members of his family got up and performed two songs and recited two poems of Rumi accompanied by music. He himself and his family are a sort of model for inter-religious co-existence. Aaron himself is a Muslim but was singing some of the Christian hymns which he loves with his aunt who is a Catholic. I was last and did a nice 45 minute set. I got to do the Bismillah again, once again to a rousing response. Singapore is the perfect place for it. I usually have set up to perform there at St Mary's facing two of the side sections, so the audience is forced to be closer. The pastor didn't allow that this time so we were performing from the altar platform which is surrounded on three sides by banks of pews but separated from the front section by quite a distance which includes a large immersion Baptismal font. I didn't fight it, and actually just relaxed and enjoyed the huge space open above and in front of me. The guitar sounded like a small orchestra and my voice felt as flexible as ever. It felt to me like being alone in a huge acoustic space and without my glasses on it almost looked like that too.

The next day my other group of friends took me out for the day, Joyce, James and Dominic. All my friends there do great research as to the best vegetarian restaurants, and this time Dominic had found a wonderful place called Mushroom Park that served practically everything with an infinite variety of mushrooms. Then I had a choice, and of the options placed before me I chose the incredible Asian Civilzations Museum. It was worth the price of the ticket just to see how well laid out the place was and how tastefully, artfully the displays are done, not to mention the contents of the displays. Of the eight or so galleries we took in, I think, five: the ones on Singapore and the Malaysian peninsula, China, Islam, and Buddhism in southeast Asia. (I'm kicking myself for not taking better notes but alas, there is only so much one can absorb!)

Then that evening Aaron hosted one of his semi-regular fireside conversations in honor of my visit. Aaron is a young civil servant (forgive me if I get this wrong, AM). He works for the government of Singapore doing future planning, and travels extensively in that capacity. As a matter of fact he had just returned from the Arabian peninsula the day of the concert. He was educated at Oxford and worked for the Singapore Embassy in Washington DC, so a very broad base. He also currently works in community organizing there in Singapore, specifically in the area of inter-religious dialogue. He hosts these gatherings as informal meetings with other like-minded folks and facilitators. We ourselves were a slice of heaven: I as usual didn't ask anyone what their religious persuasion was, but I am sure we were Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus, a few of us Catholics. We didn't have a formal presentation of dialogue but where I was sitting we had a very wonderful long discussion going among seven or eight of us. The subjects I remember the most were Christianity and America.

Looking back it's kind of funny to remember how many statements began with "The problem with America is..." and at one point, "Do you know what the problem with Christianity is?" I am not saying this as a complaint and I was in no way insulted. I actually enjoyed getting another perspective and responding (as opposed to reacting--you know the drill). Also in attendance was another little surprise. A very bright and talented young man named Steven whom I had met in Bakersfield years ago but with whom I had lost contact has since graduated from Princeton, spent time in Paris and Prague, and is currently in Singapore teaching Spanish but on his way in a week to Mexico City to be the food critic for a major daily newspaper. He happened to go to St Mary's on Ash Wednesday and to his surprise saw my name advertising the concert and voila! Aaron graciously invited him to the evening as well. He and I both had a similar approach when it came to America, and that is: "The America that you know from mass media is not all of America and it certainly isn't the America that I know and love." I also am more and more inclined to say that one can't just blame America for our tawdry exports--McDonald's, KFC, television shows and movies--one has to also blame the consumers. In the words of Nancy Reagan: "Just say 'no'!" I'm embarrassed about it too, but those things have nothing to do with my life in America, nor Steven's, so hopefully we are reasonably good exports. Another thing is this, and this is not the first time this has come up for me around the world: since the Bush-Cheney years people in other countries do tend to equate America with a certain exclusive style of evangelical Christianity that is intolerant of other religions as well as other peoples. That's too bad, and that is also not the America I know and love nor the Christianity in which I was raised.

One gentleman, a Muslim from England, asked me directly why I thought Christians in general were so heavy in their evangelical fervor, trying to convert people rather than being in dialogue and accepting of other traditions. (Forgive me if I didn't get the wording exactly right.) I said that I thought it was built into the system, at least from a certain understanding of Scripture. When Jesus' final words are an exhortation to go out to all the world and tell the good news. Mark's Gospel ends even more explicitly: "Those who believe and are baptized will be saved; those who do not believe will be condemned"; and when Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one come to the Father except through me," it's hard not to take those things at face value. I also added that this is an inheritance from Judaism, and I gave as the example that I am currently making my way through the Book of Judges. The tribes of Israel were not only mandated not to tolerate the worshipping of other gods but firmly believed that their God willed for them to slaughter anyone who stood in the way of them taking possession of the Promised Land. Now there are very few Jews today who say that God asks and demands thus, but has God changed? Or has our understanding of God changed? Can one not observe an evolution of spiritual consciousness that is taking place in the Jewish people as we make our way through their scriptures, from the early mythic stories of Genesis, through the narratives of Exodus, the first glimmers of history peeking out of the cloud of myth, through the Kings, through the prophets and the Exile and on into the poetry and Greek influenced wisdom literature. As a Christian, of course, I can also see Jesus as a high point in that evolution of consciousness, when the covenant made with a certain people opens up universally. I also pointed out how important our understanding of scriptural interpretation is in all of our traditions. In Islam itself, some schools of thought are very harsh in reaction against those within Islam who posit any notion that there are different stratae in the Qur'an or anyone who dares to suggest that it was not recited verbatim in Arabic to Muhammad (peace be upon him), while there are others who do hold those positions. And so in all of our traditions.

Which leads me to this: what does it mean to proclaim the Good News of Jesus today? I have three answers. One: that marvelous image of Francis of Assisi before the Sultan who told him all about Jesus, we are told, without every insulting the Prophet or refuting Islam. So even in explicit evagnleization there must still be (what does Paul say?) patience, kindness, gentleness. Two: the church teaches that dialogue does not replace evangelization (see Dominus Iesus"), but could it be, as Fr Thomas Keating says, that in our day and age evangelization is dialogue and dialogue is evangelization? "Recognizing that our brothers and sisters of other traditions are beloved of God with great gifts to share," I think is how he put it. Certainly the Roman Catholic documents on dialogue and evangelization all assume that before any kind of proclamtion can effectively be done there needs to be a whole foundation built in sharing life and uniting in common concerns, not to mention a sharing of spiritual experiences. Third: we simply, maybe most importantly, need to be Christ in our world. Again, even the most orthodox church documents state that the church is Christ. In this way our very presence is Christ.

I read this beautiful quote in "New Seeds" this morning. Merton writes that a new being is brought into existence by the indwelling Divine Person who is Christ, and this new being, "spiritually and mystically one identity, is at once Christ and myself." A little later he presents an idea that I have used often. I refer to it as breathing in and breathing out, the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us (Rom 5) and that same Spirit pouring out of us like a stream of life-giving water (Jn 7). He says, more eloquently, "We receive [Christ] in the 'inspiration' of secret love, and we give Him to others in the outgoing of our own charity. Our life in Christ is then a life both of receiving and of giving. We receive from God, in the Spirit, and in the same Spirit we return our love to God through our brothers and sisters." (pp. 158-159)

Anyway, I ended the evening singing a good set of songs for them, especially some pieces I didn't get to do the other night, like the new "The Ground We Share," and some I just felt like singing such as "Los Laberintos," in honor of Steven, and also an encore of "Bismillah," which this group re-affirmed is a great success of a song, for which I am grateful.

The sky just cracked open in a torrential rain, immediately bringing some relief to the sweltering heat of the day. I'm gonna go sit on the front porch of my hut and savor the darshan of the swami and the rain.